Does the UN’s Maina Kiai want to turn Kigali into Kiev? Or a NGO free-for-all? No thanks

A protestor pepper spraying police in KievAs I watched the troubling scenes the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the demonstrators actually understood what tragedies they were heaping unto their nation they thought they were fighting for. For while they destroyed buildings and set policemen alight with molotov cocktails, their country was in a recession that they weren’t doing anything to improve. In fact, they were actively making things worse. The only people making money in the imbroglio were gas mask and sleeping bag manufacturers. And of course, media people who were ‘just doing their job’, vulture-like. Some people call what those people are doing democratic practice. I call it plain stupidity. There is a reason they say, ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Which brings me to Maina Kiai’s January 27 report on Rwanda.

The Kenyan-born United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, has thrown very specific accusations against not only our government but the very laws that govern our nation. And for a person who was in the country for exactly a week, these barbs were remarkable.

First of all, he complained that prior authorisation was needed in order to engage in peaceful assembly. Despite noting that this authorisation was for assembly on public roads and public spaces in the “interest of public safety, tranquility and health” (as per the law), he still urged that “ the right to freedom of peaceful assembly should not be subject to authorization by the authorities”.

Let us examine this assertion.

What he is saying is that the rights of those who want to demonstrate supersede those of everyone else. In other words, if somebody or some organization wants to march unto parliament during the evening rush hour, they should be allowed to and to hell with anyone who is trying to drive home after a long day at work! The convenience of the rest of society doesn’t mean much. Nor the safety of our head of state it would seem.

One of the instances that he quoted was the arrest of some religious fanatics who tried to enter a restricted zone around the president’s residence in Kiyovu. In Mr. Kiai’s opinion, they should not have been arrested for trespass. It doesn’t matter whether they had entered a restricted zone. Perhaps, in his opinion, they should have been allowed to walk right into the presidential bedchambers to express their right to assemble wherever they liked.

The kind of absolutist thinking that the Special Rapporteur ascribes to doesn’t take into account the needs and rights of EVERY individual in a society. People wanting to have their voices ‘heard’ can do what they want, how they want and when they want. I’m happy to live in a country where my needs are also a priority.

And I’m happy to live in a country with a national vision that is all-encompassing. While Mr. Kiai complains about, and I quote, “ that the development partnerships between the Government and local and international NGOs are of a compulsory nature. This is evidenced by the necessity of collaboration letters, action plans that must align with the development objectives of the district, down to the level of activities, and in some cases demands for performance contracts to be concluded between local authorities and all NGOs. In fact, the perception of some in Government and in the civil society sector appears to be that NGOs are implementers of Government policy. Honestly, I would not have it any other way. I like the fact that they are implementers of government policy. No one in their right mind would have an issue with either Vision 2020 or EDPRS 2. And if they did, I would be suspicious about their intentions.

Rwanda’s miraculous socio-economic progress did not occur by mistake or by chance. It has only been possible because everyone read from a similar script. The NGO’s that Minaloc registered had to be able to prove that they were actually going to improve people’s lives and not just meander about, swallowing aid monies without consequence.

I understand that he had a job to do. But perhaps if he spent more than just a week in the country, or talked to more Rwandans, he would have known that we are perfectly happy with the status quo. And if the status quo ever changes, it will be because we ALL want the change. Not just some vocal minority.

Sending dodgy motos’ to jail is a bit harsh, don’t you think?

I am willing to bet a few francs that every single Kigali driver has a favourite ‘Why I hate taxi motos story’. This is mine.

Kigali: The oh so good

Kigali motos look really fun don’t they?

Driving home from town around one in the morning a few years ago I saw a taxi moto, with a passenger, waiting to turn onto the road heading to town at the Cadillac intersection. The moto rider saw my fast approaching car, paused, and then on the spur of the moment, attempted to make a break for it. I still don’t know whether he was mentally unstable, drunk or high on something, but I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I realised that the fool was actually riding smack into my 4×4.

My instincts kicked in as I attempted to swerve away from his motocycle but he was simply moving too fast and before I knew it, I heard a sickening crash, followed by a scratching sound. I remember braking and thinking “oh my God, I’ve killed two people”. Jumping out of my car and running back to the scene, I fully expected to see a bloodbath. However, by some Act of God, neither the rider or his passenger was injured. In fact, by the time a police patrol arrived the female passenger had run off (probably because she was engaged in dodgy business). And funny enough, the motocycle, which I thought was ruined to damnation, suffered a few minor scratches. My car on the other hand? I lost the right headlight, indicator, side mirror and the entire right side was extremely scratched and battered. When the traffic police arrived, we discovered that the fellow did not have a drivers license which he said he left at home.

Getting my car fixed took about a year, what with the police reports, drives to Gasabo Court (in Kabuga) to get the judgment, negotiating with the insurance company, and then finally with the garage. What got my goat was that while I did all this, I was pretty sure the culprit had happily moved on, riding like a maniac as usual. So, it is okay to presume that I have a bone to pick with the errant moto riders. However, it doesn’t mean that I feel that they should be the target of a unfair fatwa.

On the 16th of this month, Kigali City, the National Police and RURA, in a meeting at police headquarters, decided that, and I’m quoting directly from a police press release, “a motorcyclist involved in traffic-related offences be imprisoned”.

Now, I’m all strong laws and proclamations that protect the weak and all that. However, what I don’t like are laws that unfairly target people.

Why should only taxi motorcyclists get imprisoned for causing accidents? They aren’t the only bad drivers around. I

The wages of bad riding is...death? Injury?

The wages of bad riding is…death? Injury?

have had countless conversations with foreigners who complain about how badly Rwandans drive. Plus, this measure is vague. For example, would a ‘private’ motorcyclist get imprisoned for the same offense? Probably not. So, what the errant rider would be punished for isnt his/her actual offense but rather their profession. And that isn’t right. Laws must be able to be applied across the board.

Here is my suggestion. Since it seems that we want to put these riders on a legal pedestal, perhaps their training and qualifications should reflect this new reality. Presently, anyone who qualifies for a motorcycle permit is able to become a ‘taxi moto’. I think that that qualification simply isn’t enough. These people have people’s lives in their hands and the hoops that they must jump through to get a taxi moto qualification should reflect that as well.

Simply arresting and incarcerating them will not give them the tools they need to become more responsible users of the road. Perhaps the traffic police, working with their associations, should do more at the testing phase. Make it harder to get a taxi moto permit. Better we have fewer taxi motos on the streets who actually are qualified to carry passengers, rather than have a bunch who are simply a danger to themselves, their passengers and everyone else.

Who actually cares about the traditional gusaba ceremony anyway?

The words ‘Rwandan culture’ will induce a bout of collective handwringing that I find amusing to no end. On Friday, the most read article in The New Times website was’ Traditional weddings: Who is responsible for the death of the ‘Ugusaba’ cultural norms?’.

A gusaba in pink: The HORROR!!!!

A gusaba in pink: The HORROR!!!!

In it, people moan about girls “who don’t know anything at their introductions and every now and then, they turn their heads to look at their mothers to instruct them on what to do next”, about couples who “are just being led sheepishly and do everything for formality”, and families that come, meet and talk “aimlessly, then after a few minutes they drink and eat and walk out without anyone paying attention to any detail”. Lord forbid if the bride is pregnant because “what is the man coming to beg for since he already has her”?

And if the couple actually aren’t being led sheepishly about or expecting a baby together, the complaints don’t end there. One father of six girls complained, a bit self-indulgently in my opinion, that the value of cows isn’t what it used to be back in the ‘golden days’. “You attend an introduction and when time comes to show the cows, the DJ plays the sound of a mowing cow. This is unacceptable. The joy of a girl’s father is to see the cows that have been handed to him. Unfortunately for him, he gets ripped off. All he gets these days are stupid sounds of a cow blaring from loud speakers. It’s unbelievable how much things have lost value. I will never support traditional ceremonies of these days unless they follow the normal procedures that we followed”, he said.

I found not only the opinions cited in the article quite bemusing but also quite reactionary. I like to divide Rwandans into two schools of cultural/traditional spheres; the cultural fundamentalists and everyone else. The fundamentalists think that our greatest days, culturally speaking, are long gone. They look at our popular culture and think, “Rwanda is no more”.

They sneer at the wedding attire, at the toasts, at the relationships and at the transforming gender roles. In fact, there are very few new things that they do like. To them I say, don’t romanticize the past. Sure the ceremonies were nice and ‘traditional’, but they were also extremely abhorrent.

Many of the blushing brides of yesteryear were forced to marry boys they didn’t know in exchange for cattle. While some people might argue that this exchange wasn’t a ‘bride price’ per se but rather a token of appreciation from the groom’s family, the fact of the matter was that the bride left her family’s workforce to join her new family’s workforce. In exchange for cattle and other trinkets.

In my opinion, the whole concept of gusaba is wrong, demeaning and counter to all the gender strides were are trying to2243459170_d1ec7a3b91_o make. Why should a grown man have to ask a woman’s father for permission to marry her? Yes I understand a groom seeking his future father-in-laws approval, but permission? Does the bride have a say in it? What happens if, by chance, the girl’s father says no during the ceremony?

Secondly, the cattle exchange rubs me the wrong way. Today, women aren’t seen as a familial labour force (or at least not as much anyway) to be moved from Place A to Place B as the men choose so the bride ‘price’ should be null and void. There can be no price if there is no commodity to exchange. And the ‘appreciation’ argument is laughable. I mean, if the groom’s family gives cows in appreciation for the brides good upbringing, doesn’t it seem reasonable that the bride’s family do the same? After all, the groom was raised in a manner good enough to take their daughter’s hand in marriage. So, why doesn’t his family get even mere goats and chickens? Its hypocritical.

So what if the ceremonies are different? I don’t think its a bad thing; especially because, no matter my efforts, the gusaba will not fade into the distance. At least people are trying to incorporate the old with the new these days. Sure, the mooing sound is courtesy of loudspeakers, but real cows find their way to the father’s pastureland. The only way the gusaba ceremony (or any aspect of traditional Rwandan culture) will survive this century is if it stays relevant and applicable to Rwandans themselves. Instead of moaning, lets sit back and enjoy the festivities. No matter how newfangled they are.

I’m looking at my country through new eyes

Kigali: The oh so good

Kigali: The oh so good

On Friday night, I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines jet and left icy, smog-filled Beijing to return to sunny, warm Kigali. I had the bad luck to get a middle seat the entire flight but I didnt care; I was coming home and the soreness that ensured during the flight was worth it. Especially when I saw the green hills of Kanombe beckoning. I actually felt tears well up in my eyes as my feet touched the ground. I was back home.

I’ve been away for only four months but I started looking at things with eyes anew. I couldn’t believe just how lush and green this capital of ours is. Whenever I heard my expatriate friends wax lyrical about that I would roll my eyes and accuse them of being hopeless romantics. But now I see things through their eyes; the bright green, nay emerald, almost hurts the eyes. Another color that has assailed my senses is brown (or to be more specific, ochre). When you live in a country whose dominant feature is ubiquitous concrete, you forget that it is the brown soil that sustains us all. It is a beautiful thing.

I never thought that I’d miss sitting in a bus and hearing idle conversation but Beijing put things in perspective. Human beings are social animals and language is the glue that holds it all together. Sadly because I couldn’t speak Chinese I could not tap into the community that I found myself in. I felt like alone and disconnected. Getting back home has been an exercise in reintroducing myself into Rwandan society. Suddenly, after months, I could bargain with fruit sellers in the market and crack jokes with the gym instructor. I would turn on the radio and listen to pop music made by my peers and read local Kinyarwanda newspapers (albeit rather slowly). I was back in my community; a part of the social fabric.

But looking at things anew isn’t always going to have a positive connotations. Driving around the city revealed to me

Kigali: The oh so ugly

Kigali: The oh so ugly

just how far we have to go. The things that I was once so proud of (the smooth roads, sidewalks) now became things I took for granted. They were ‘normal’ things; the only reason that we found them so extraordinary was because our expectations were so low.

As we start this new year 2014, perhaps what our New Year’s Resolutions should be is to raise our expectations. We mustn’t become self-satisfied or even worse, complacent. The attitude that some of us have that ‘we are doing great things for an African nation’ must stop. We must look higher. Why must we compare ourselves to Kinshasa, Bujumbura, Kampala, Nairobi or even Johannesburg? Doing that would be wrong and rather unfortunate. All the cities I mentioned are great places to live. They certainly have good points that we can incorporate into our own but they are not first-world in any way. They are ‘developing world’ cities and thats not what we should aim for.

I know that thinking that Kigali will become like Geneva or Stockholm in my lifetime sounds like a pipe-dream, but I ask. Why can’t we dream? Why should we always be slaves to our current circumstances? Why can’t we continuously strive to make leaps instead of the tiny steps that some would have us make? Decades ago, American astronauts walked on the moon. That achievement came about because they had the will to get up there. Yes they had the money. But they are the ones who dared to dream those big dreams.

So, this year promise yourself that you will not settle for the status quo. Promise yourself that you shall dream big dreams. And you will act on those dreams. I certainly will. Happy 2014!